Jens Lekman‘s got a shtick. He’s been refining it for quite a while now — call it an alternate Jens, a persona that only exists in his songs, somewhere between himself, a good friend, an acquaintance and an absolute stranger — a hopeless romantic haplessly wandering into one wayward love after another, wandering waywardly from Berlin to Gothenburg to New York to Melbourne, locations that appear as sets for a perambulating soul to give itself something approaching flesh.
The best songs this time around are Melbourne songs. A different location, but how far have we really travelled from the Jens of “Maple Leaves” and “Black Cab” — the two songs by which I first measured up this character — that Jens tragicomically mistaking a lover’s deprecation of their romance as “make believe” for “maple leaves,” and then somehow ludicrously linking those leaves with the fall and winding up with Mark E. Smith…that Jens killing the party yet again and then fearing for his life in the back of a black cab headed home in the middle of the night?
Bend Oscar Wilde’s dictate slightly toward the heart: love is too important to be taken seriously. A fitting motto for Jens Lekman to fly his songs under. Also a fitting motto, perhaps, for Stephin Merritt, whose wit runs in similar circles to that of Lekman, though more caustically so, excavating more space, as it runs its course, between the singer’s life and the emotion of the song. The confessional currents of Lekman’s songs are really what most differentiate the two, and they are stronger than ever on I Know What Love Isn’t. But in his mischievously earnest way, behind that mischievously earnest voice, Jens Lekman keeps the factual and the fabricated all mixed up. Did this stuff actually happen to him? To someone he knows? It’s not important in the least, but it is important that it feels as if it did, that it feels like the product of experience and an able rendering of that experience.
Ten more love songs, ten more songs about excitement touching down in disarray, Lekman’s voice reaching for high notes in contexts where they are given as both faintly absurd and absurdly fateful (or, sometimes, fatal). “The World Moves On” is one of the best songs Lekman has recorded. Where the memorably eventful day-in-the-life narration ends and a sort of chain of awkward and painful events and reflections gets reeled out, the confessional collides with the kaleidoscopic. The kaleidoscopic pop-song mundane: fragments of broken love, love being born making out in bar after bar, terrible bushfires in Victoria in 2009, our narrator sitting with a beer in a park, trying to escape the heat, offering food to one of the possums he sits watching. All the close-ups of the verse give way to the panoramic levity of the chorus: “You don’t get over a broken heart / you just learn to carry it gracefully.”
Lekman has come to favor playing things straight musically, keeping the song itself at the center of things, bigger than the instrumentation and arrangements, bigger than the sound. And the sound isn’t really small, though, throughout I Know What Love Isn’t, it is soft, pleasant, deceptively nondescript. If you don’t listen closely, the songs feel almost generic, anything but gripping; Night Falls Over Kortedala, which I recall feeling somewhat the same about when it was released, sounds almost wild in comparison. Of course, there is a similar lavishness present displayed as well on Love, by, for instance the dourly cautionary, “She Just Don’t Want to Be With You,” or in the boisterously meandering catharsis of “The End of the World is Bigger than Love.” But nothing here comes close to the tropical paradise of melancholy called up by Kortedala‘s “Sipping on the Sweet Nectar,” or feels as stylistically playful as “Kanske Ar Jag Kar i Dig” or “Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo.” And whether anything here is as funny as “Waiting for Kirsten” or “An Argument with Myself,” much less “A Postcard to Nina,” is doubtful.
I Know What Love Isn’t is a record that I very much enjoy, but it also reminded me that it had been too long since I listened to Night Falls Over Kortedala, and, going back to it, I was surprised to find it more satisfying, both than I remembered it, and in relation to I Know What Love Isn’t. I’m not about to judge Jens Lekman’s new record by the last though, and I am always happy to hear his latest excursions onto that strange levee dividing sentimentality from absurdity, profound instances of everyday experience from their meaningless mirror selves. I just can’t shake the feeling there is less to hold onto this time around, but then it is music, and maybe there shouldn’t be anything to hold on to. Maybe I am asking the wrong questions. Maybe in the amassing of women’s names, incidents common and uncommon, and situations transcendent and emotionally debilitating there is some kind of uniquely coherent take on the world of human relationships that was destined to be dressed up as little as possible at some point, to stand out like a sore thumb in a musical landscape where more often than not the longevity of moving songs is foregone in pursuit of the fleeing novelties of the sound of the week.